The Picky Reader: Introducing Children to the Big Bad Wolf

bigbadwolfFairy tales. Should we share them with our children, or shouldn’t we?

Supporters may take a page from Bettelheim and say that the tales help children explore and experience their natural fears in a safe context. They may say the tales have endured because they feature universal themes: life and death, poverty and wealth, love and loss. Some say they provide wish fulfillmentCinderella, anyone? Others note their impact on Western literature and culture: Can’t we better understand Frozen if we’ve read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen?

Critics say that the tales’ elements such as dead mothers, passive girls, and starving children make them unsuitable for modern audiences. Most educators point to their sad or violent endings – the Little Mermaid drowning; Snow White’s stepmother dancing in hot iron shoes until she drops dead – as making them unsuitable for a classroom without serious revision.

Though I’m no fan of dead mothers or passive girls, I always thought that I would unflinchingly share these tales with my own children. I aligned myself with the traditionalists who consider fairy tales too much a part of our cultural fiber to be overlooked. Plus, I operate under the assumption that we overprotect our children these days. They can handle a little violent literary content, especially if presented thoughtfully.

Fast forward to this summer. My son was on the cusp of turning three, and I decided to take him to the Brookline Puppet Showplace Theatre’s performance of Jack and the Beanstalk. An easy tale to start with, I figured… Jack is a hero, outsmarting the big bad giant, right?

I checked out two picture book versions of the tale to introduce him to the story before we saw the play. In both, he had good fun seeing Jack snatch the giant’s gold and his hen. Then came the finale, when the giant chases Jack down the beanstalk. Remember what happens? Jack grabs an axe, chops it down, and the giant falls to his death. Unable to stop myself, I immediately turned into a censoring machine: “Oops! The giant fell down far, far away! Too far to bother Jack and his mother again. Everyone’s going to be all right!”

My son didn’t quite buy it. Upon rereading, he insisted that I skip those pages in both picture books, and when we saw the play, I had to assure him that we could step into the lobby for that part. We did, though it turned out that the play revised the ending dramatically: After chasing Jack down the beanstalk, the giant confronts him and they become friends. In the final scene, Jack celebrates the giant’s birthday.

The traditionalist in me balks at this sappy revision, but the parent in me feels that this ending, presented to a room of three- to five-year-olds, was just right. I am working to reconcile these conflicting feelings as I move through other tales with my son. I am still not ready to tell him that at the end of Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood, no hunter comes along to rescue Little Red and Grandma, or that the heroine of the classic Sleeping Beauty gets impregnated in her sleep. Yet I don’t want him to think the Puppet Showplace Theatre, wonderful as its shows are, or Disney movies, for that matter, are the definitive versions of these tales.

I’m going to see how he responds to fairy tale picture books from such timeless illustrators as Trina Schart Hyman, Barry Moser, and Nancy Ekholm Burkert. What I’m excited to do when he is a little older is get multiple versions of the same tale and talk through the differences. These tales have their roots in the oral storytelling tradition, and what better way to show him that folk and fairy tales are mutable and constantly changing than by seeing these changes in the pages of picture books? Perhaps he’ll feel empowered by selecting his favorites – or by dreaming up new happily ever afters of his own.

Holding books for children to the highest standard, Elaine Dimopoulos teaches writing and children’s literature at Boston University, Simmons College, and Grub Street. Find her at http://www.elainedimopoulos.com.

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